THE DIPLOMAT: "You are in danger – you are on the list"

by Katy Migiro | @katymigiro | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 3 April 2014 08:58 GMT

Johan Swinnen: "In 1992, I sent a fax to Brussels, including a pamphlet warning that Tutsis would be exterminated." Photo courtesy of Johan Swinnen

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Belgium’s ambassador remembers how ethnic hatred exploded into 100 days of mass murder

KIGALI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Johan Swinnen was Belgium's ambassador to Rwanda between 1990 and 1994, living in Kigali with his wife and four children. Twenty years after the Rwanda genocide, he recalls how ethnic hatred exploded into 100 days of mass murder – and how the international community was powerless to prevent it.

"In 1990, there had been massacres already and the persecution of ethnic Tutsi. Several times, I spoke to Brussels about the risk of radicalisation.

"There were the Hutu Ten Commandments (published in Kangura, an anti-Tutsi newspaper). ‘Don’t marry Tutsis. Never make deals with a Tutsi.’ Hate propaganda. This was very dangerous.

"I expressed a lot of fears, but I admit that I did not see the coming of a genocide.

"In 1992, I sent a fax to Brussels, including a pamphlet warning that Tutsis would be exterminated.

"A high-ranking former official who came to see me time-to-time gave me a list of people that, according to him, were part of the Akazu (Hutu extremists including the president’s wife) who were preparing an extermination, or generalised bloodbath.

"I tried to find evidence that these accusations were serious but we didn’t have enough evidence.

"The European community were pushing for implementation of the August 1993 Arusha accords, which had been signed to end civil war between President Juvenal Habyarimana's government and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

"I told Habyarimana several times: ‘There is no alternative if you want peace.’

"On October 21, 1993, Burundi’s democratically elected Hutu president was assassinated. That day, I was called by Habyarimana and he was very angry.

"He told me: ‘He was moderate. Nevertheless, he was killed. How will I be able to sell my accords?’

"The radicalisation had already started. I knew people who had been very moderate, but had become Hutu Power (extremist parties).

"I warned Brussels that RTLM radio was calling for ethnic hate and violence. It was very popular.

"I asked Habyarimana about it constantly, and he said, ‘It is a private enterprise. When you have private radio, do you intervene?’

"Together with other signs, the militia, arms distribution, I was very scared.

"On April 6, around nine o'clock, I received a phone call that Habyarimana's plane had been shot down.

"My children were at a restaurant with friends. I jumped into the car. I drove as fast as I could. I shouted across the restaurant: ‘People, go home, go home. Something terrible has happened.’

"A colonel in the Rwandan army came to my house and said: "Ambassador, stay home. Don't go out. You are in danger. You are on the (death squads’) list, maybe high on the list.’

"On the radio, people were encouraged to kill the Belgians. They said that the Belgians had killed the president.

"(A moderate Tutsi minister) Lando, who was a very good friend, called me that night. I might have been one of the last people to whom he spoke.

"He said: ‘I see movement in the garden. They are going to kill us.’

(Lando, his Canadian wife and two children were abducted and killed soon after.)

"I spoke to Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, who told me that she would go to the radio first thing in the morning. There was still some hope that her appeal to calm would help. But at 6, 7 a.m., the shooting became quite intense.

"I can't remember when I was told that 10 Belgian U.N. peacekeepers were killed protecting the prime minister.

"At the end of the day, the Belgian commander and U.N. force commander came to present their condolences. They told me there had been a long, atrocious battle. It must have been horrible.

"We had about 30 people in our house: the widow of the minister of public works – who had been killed two months before – with her children, the chef de cabinet of Habyarimana and his family, the leader of a human rights group and a couple of Belgian families.

"United Nations troops came and said: ‘We will protect the residence.’

"I said: ‘If you come and visibly protect the residence that might provoke even more anger against Belgians. Go away. I’ll take my risks.’

"I had a very long conversation with the chief of staff of the gendarmerie Augustin Ndindiliyimana, who told me: ‘Don’t leave. Keep the Belgians in Kigali. Don’t evacuate.’

"He was really begging: ‘It will be horrible. At least with foreign presence we can avoid the worst.’

"On April 11, Belgian troops arrived for the evacuation of around 1,500 Belgians.

"The next day, I received very strong instructions from my minister, who said: ‘You have to go because we know that you are in danger.’

"I closed the embassy after burning our files. The minister ordered me to take a tank. We were three or four people in that tank. We were shot at as we rolled by.

"We lost 10 or 11 Belgian nationals. I knew two Belgian women married to Rwandan Tutsis. We lost three young volunteers, maybe 22, 23 years old, who worked near Gisenyi.

"The pullout of Belgian peacekeepers, which started on April 17, was controversial. There was a withdrawal of a very skeleton presence of about 250 troops.

"You still hear about it: ‘The international community abandoned Rwanda.’

"The prime minister informed me, and I said it was indeed a risky and awkward decision. But for Belgium, it was unavoidable. It was not possible to hold on anymore. We could not make the policy of the international community alone.

"In February, the foreign minister had already written to the Secretary General of the United Nations to strengthen the mandate because it was very weak.

"The U.N. troops came to monitor the Arusha Accords, but the agreements had imploded. So there was no agreement to monitor anymore.

"I said could the U.N. troops be redeployed in a neighboring country, for instance Kenya, to give them time to reassess the situation and maybe get a new mandate from the Security Council? And then quickly go back. I pleaded for it.

"At that time, we hoped we would be back in two or three weeks. We didn’t know that the genocide would last 100 days."

Swinnen is writing a book about his time as Belgian Ambassador to Rwanda called “Standplaats Kigali: Herinneringen aan de Rwandese tragedie” (Post-Kigali: Memories of the Rwandan tragedy). It will be published in September. 


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